Chicago Sun-Times
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Peter Gabriel, "Scratch My Back" (Virgin) [3.5 STARS out of 4]

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Peter Gabriel's impressive career neatly divides into three distinct eras: the progressive-rock years with Genesis (1969 to 1974); the first stretch of his solo incarnation (1977 to 1992), which saw him morph from a wildly inventive art-rocker into an unlikely pop star with "So" and "Us," and what will inevitably be the final act. And if the 60-year-old singer's output has slowed to a trickle during this last phase--with only two proper studio albums in the last 18 years--well, no one can accuse him of churning out recycled product like so many of his peers.

Yes, the covers album can be a sure sign of artistic bankruptcy, or at least a songwriting well run dry. But Gabriel's effort is distinguished by several twists, starting with his as-yet unfulfilled challenge to fellow musicians to return the favor by covering songs from his catalog. Next, the finest moments come not from fellow Baby Boom heroes such as David Bowie ("Heroes"), Neil Young ("Philadelphia") or Paul Simon ("The Boy in the Bubble"), but courtesy of much more current indie/underground acts including Bon Iver ("Flume"), Regina Spektor ("Après moi"), the Arcade Fire ("My Body is a Cage"), the Magnetic Fields ("The Book of Love") and Radiohead ("Street Spirit (Fade Out)").

On most of these songs, Gabriel bravely (and sometimes unsuccessfully) recasts the original upbeat readings into renditions that are much darker, more brooding and more introspective. But most daringly of all, given that his solo career has largely been defined by his innovative use of world rhythms, he relies solely on spare orchestral instrumentation and his voice, eschewing drums and percussion.

That voice has of course aged, but the growing scratchiness only enhances the fragile emotions and intimate vibe of the best of these readings. In the end, "Scratch My Back" doesn't break new ground, and it is unlikely to win new fans--unless we count some of the folks Gabriel has covered. But it ultimately is a much richer and more satisfying effort than his last studio disc, "Up" (2002), and it shows that he is still willing to stretch, take chances and challenge our vision of the singer we think we've known for more than four decades.

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13 Comments

I just wanted to comment on the notion that Peter's last album was not a satisfying effort. I being a Gabriel fan since the Genesis days was quite plesed with the last effort and personally think it was a more breakthrough album musically then "US". It may not have had the album sales, but was certainly a strong album (I even own it on vinyl ) and tour that followed. some of the best songs Gabriel has recorded to date regardless of radio play. I look forward to getting this new album immediately. Cheers to Gabriel!

I'll second that. I didn't quite know what to think of "Up" at first listen, but it has grown to be my favorite album of Peter Gabriel's as a whole. It certainly blazed new sonic territory for him, and the songwriting is some of his most introspective yet.

Let's hear what Greg Kot has to say about all this...l

Pretty fair review. I think the key word here is daring. Gabriel does what he wants and takes chances. Taking on sacred cows Radiohead and converting their song into something other than an American Idol audition was sure to invite the wrath of purists. Gabriel pulls it off. This is a stunning, bold album.

But every review of a Gabriel album should be given with a grain of salt. His most adventurous work - III, Security, and Passion - received scathing reviews at first because people listened through them through the narrow lense of the day. Now they are understood to be classics that shifted the paradigm. Gabriel doesn't perform music for today, so much as for 10 years from now.

For me, this was his most consistent work since Passion. It is dark yes - but dark like an Ingmar Bergman or Kieslowski film. There is great comfort in the misery.

I´m not sure how many Gabriel fans will relate to this review. His last album was well accepted among his fans, and I´m willing to risk this album won´t be following. Covers? What a dissapointment.

I must echo other sentiment: Up was a terrific album. Like many Gabriel fans, it bugs me that he only bothers to release a disc every other presidential administrations (which would be less annoying of he didn't count two-termers as one), but he hasn't released a track that wasn't worth the wait.

I remember hearing The Book of Love during the finale of Scrubs and knew immediately it was Peter Gabrial song I never heard. Scouring the Internet I found it and listeded to it repeatedly not knowing it was an actual cover. Peters music is his own, and there is nothing like it. What he will do with these covers will be explosive, and probably better than the originals themselves...I can't wait. He has yet to disappoint me.

This review (and the subsequent comments) made me go back and listen to "Up," which I hadn't heard in a while. It's not a bad album, but I still think it's Gabriel's weakest work. It has a few very good moments, but The Barry Williams Show is an execrable mess, and too much of the rest of it is dark and sparse just for the sake of being dark and sparse.

I really think he's still got material in the well, though. The song from Wall-E was a surprising treat. I'd bet if he decides to take a break from his (very noble) production work for underexposed artists, he's still got at least one more great original album in him. I hope so.

I think you should listen to UP again. It is a fantastic album. I put it up there with SO and US. Peter just keeps getting better with age. I hope he expands his tour. I saw his Up tour and all of his previous tours. Maybe A GENESIS tour to finalize a GREAT career. Thank You Peter for all your exceptional work.

Peter Gabriel has yet to release an album that I do not like. I have been streaming scratch my back everyday since it has been made available. Love the new album. However there does need to be a genesis reunion unfortunately he is too stubborn to ever do this.

This might be the only Peter Gabriel album I don't buy. I hate it, and I'm hoping I won't have to wait another 8 years for PG to redeem himself. I'm a big fan, I've had "Book of Love" for years off the SHALL WE DANCE soundtrack and have collected more singles and guest appearances than I care to list. UP is far, far better (with the exception of the aforementioned "Barry Williams Show").

PG has had a few duds in his career and two of them are known by "scratch" (the third was Us). His second album, a Fripp-produced disappointment of uneven and meandering nature, is know by it's "scratch" cover, while this latest, Scratch my Back, is a Glass-ian slow take of other's material, best used for inducing sleep. Worthwhile? Well, we'll eventually get a disc of the artists PG covered covering PG music. That's the best he can do? Yawn.

At any rate, Jim, revisit Up. It's a gem.

BTW, Gabriel's first solo release was a cover of The Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever for the 1976 soundtrack All This And World War II.

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